Jill Whalen gets JobShadowed about her career as an SEO consultant.  You can find at her company, High Rankings, and on her Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.  

What do you do for a living?jill-whalen

Basically, I do SEO consulting and training with companies of all sizes.

How would you describe what you do?

Mainly I review websites and how they’re performing for the company and provide advice, recommendations and training as to how they might do a better job of meeting their targeted traffic goals. My main focus is on increasing their organic Google traffic.

What does your work entail?

For a typical SEO website audit (which is what most of my work is these days), I first read through my client’s questionnaire that I provide them with when they sign on for an audit. This gives me an idea of what their business is about, who their target audience is and what their overall goals are. It also tells me if they’ve been losing Google traffic over time, or if they are mainly just looking to kick things up a notch.

Then I’ll dig into their Google Analytics to see what’s going on there and make note of whether or not they seem to have been hit by any of the Google updates that have happened over the past few years (Panda and Penguin). After that I browse through the client’s website and take notes and make screenshots of possible problem areas. Once I’ve got a good handle on the website, what it has got going for it and where it needs help, I’ll document it all in a site audit report and send it off the to client. After they’ve had a chance to digest the information, they have the opportunity to have a phone consultation to go over it together and have me answer any additional questions.

…if you really want to get involved, you will need to separate yourself from them by really and truly knowing what you’re doing and being able to provide concrete results for your clients…Work for an established agency if you can where you can learn by others who get great results for their clients. If you can’t do that then work for free or for a very low cost to clients so that you can use their sites to practice on. You should also have your own site that you use to test what works and what doesn’t.

If I’m also doing in-house SEO training for the client, I’ll then put together a custom presentation based on my findings from the website audit and spend a day with the marketing, IT and PR teams of the company. This helps them better understand how to implement the recommendations and also provides them with the knowledge and skills to continually keep SEO in the back of their mind when making any changes or adding any content to the website.

What’s a typical work week like?

If it’s a High Rankings Advisor newsletter week (every other week) I have to make time for that. For the newsletter I usually spend most of Tuesday writing it, then send it off to my proofreader by 5:00 pm. Then I post it on my site on Wednesday and send it all out in the newsletter, usually by around noon.

Most weeks I work on just one client’s website audit and/or training. And of course there’s the answering of emails, responding to comments on the newsletter/blog site, and moderating the High Rankings Forum, sending invoices, keeping up with industry news, etc.

I also have a couple of industry friends on IM that I might chat with a bit if I see something interesting or funny on Twitter or Facebook. I typically have Twitter running on one of my screens and glance over at it now and then. If I’m bored or just need a break I might also check out Facebook.

I work from my home office so I’ll usually just eat lunch at my desk while catching up with news. And up until a month or so ago when I hurt my back, I used to take a yoga class on Tuesdays and Thursdays at noon. That was a nice break in the day which helped to energize me. I’m hoping to get back to doing that soon.

How did you get started?

I have been online since the early 1990’s and had a parenting chat room on the old IRC. In about 1993 or so, I figured out how to create a parenting website for the chatroom. I wanted to learn how to get it found in the search engines of the day (Lycos, Infoseek, Excite, etc.) and realized that for the most part in those days it was the words on the page that provided relevance to the search engines. Eventually I started creating websites for some of my parenting friends I had met in the chatroom, and would also offer SEO services to them. (Although it wasn’t called that back then.) I always hired copywriters for the sites and would teach them to simply be more descriptive when they wrote so that the search engines would understand what the site was all about. And thus the SEO copywriting industry was born!

Eventually I stopped designing websites (I wasn’t very good at it) and focused only on the SEO component as that was a good niche at the time. There weren’t very many people doing it in those days and I had made a bit of a name for myself in the latter part of the 1990’s within online marketing circles through many email newsletter lists that I was on. I also started consulting a lot about technical SEO issues, especially during a website redesign as I would see so many business lose their search engine traffic after they went live with a new site.

What do you like about what you do?

First and foremost I like the freedom that working for myself provides me. A few years ago I tried the whole office and employees thing, but it really wasn’t for me. I wasn’t able to be profitable as most of what I do is based on my own knowledge base from so many years of experience. As far as the work goes, I really like reviewing websites. I have a knack for looking at just about any site and knowing pretty quickly what its basic flaws are and the things that they could change which would make it likely to perform better in the search engines.

What do you dislike?

Taxes. I dislike getting all the information together to get them done, and I dislike having to pay so much of my hard earned money to Uncle Sam.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

Most of what I do these days are one-off reports or training classes so I get paid for each of those. I insist on payment up front for all my work as I’ve been burned in the past when I didn’t do that. While my prices aren’t the cheapest around, they’re generally low enough that my clients can afford to pay it up front. Most of my clients know me from my newsletter and have a certain level of trust in me already, so having them pay up front isn’t usually a problem. If it is, I tell them I can’t work for them then. You’d be surprised how many somehow find a way to pay up front if they really want to work with me!

How much do you make? 

I typically net in the 6 figures now that I am back to having no overhead. And that’s with me being very picky on which clients I’ll work with.

I’ve been trying to work fewer hours and with fewer clients these days, but with Google constantly putting out new Penguin and Panda updates, many companies to need my services more than ever. I hate to turn them down if I’m pretty sure I can help them. But I wouldn’t expect someone starting out on their own in SEO to make that much until they had many years of experience.

In some ways SEO has become a commodity where it’s hard to charge what it may be worth to the client. It’s really important to build up trust and also a name for yourself if you want to be able to charge enough to make a decent living.

How much money did/do you make starting out?

I think the first year I did some paid work in the 1990’s I made $500 🙂

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

It’s hard to say. I didn’t have any education as far as SEO goes because the field didn’t even exist when I went to college. And sadly, from what I understand, even in college marketing courses today they don’t have many courses that involve search marketing.

But I think you can be good at SEO if you have a good understanding of marketing and also some experience with HTML. SEO has two main components, the marketing side and the technical side. If you can understand both of those aspects, you could be very good at it. I find that the best SEOs are both right-brained and left-brained rather than having one be dominant.

What is most challenging about what you do?

Trying to figure out what exactly might have been the cause for a site to lose a good percentage of their Google traffic. It’s kind of like a puzzle and in some ways it can be like going back in time when reviewing Google Analytics from past years.

What is most rewarding?

When my recommendations are implemented and the website in question gains the targeted search engine traffic that they were hoping for.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

It’s a pretty crowded space right now. And it’s also full of snake oil salesmen. So if you really want to get involved, you will need to separate yourself from them by really and truly knowing what you’re doing and being able to provide concrete results for your clients. Do not just do the things that you read about in SEO blogs, but have a real understanding of what is necessary for each website.

They’re all different and they all need different things. Work for an established agency if you can where you can learn by others who get great results for their clients. If you can’t do that then work for free or for a very low cost to clients so that you can use their sites to practice on. You should also have your own site that you use to test what works and what doesn’t.

How much time off do you get/take?

Pretty much as much as I want. I’ll often combine vacations with teaching SEO seminars or speaking at search marketing conferences. But I can also work from anywhere, so I can travel somewhere for fun and still put in a few hours a day if I want to. Because I love what I do, it really doesn’t feel like work most of the time.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

With all the SEO spam that’s out there, people who don’t know what real SEO is will of course assume that I trick the search engines. Which of course is the exact opposite of what I do: Help websites to be the best they can be for people AND search engines.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

Because my kids are all adults now, I’m at the point where I’m trying to work less. I’d like to potentially keep doing some SEO training seminars in various cities around the world, especially places where I haven’t been before.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

Good SEO is very hard these days. There are no quick fixes for most websites. Anyone who wants to do it as a career needs to understand that. It’s all about making a great, usable site that is better than the competition, which is a lot of work!

Most should probably start out learning just a few aspects of SEO and specializing in those areas rather than trying to know everything. I have always found that becoming an expert in one area is much more satisfying (and can make more money) than knowing a little bit about lots of areas.